Ninie Hammon’s Blog for Writers

The Three Best Ways To Physically Describe Your Characters

Posted: September 17, 2013, 5:54PM
"She had hands like a man, big and strong, and they were only still when she held her Bible."






“You had a visitor while you were out.”


“Didn’t give her name.”

“What’d she look like?”

“She was about as tall as a five-foot, four-inch mop handle, with a windblown look—that look you get from standing outside in the wind. Her voice was the high-pitched sound a forklift makes when it backs up, but her laugh was throaty, like a cat hocking up a hairball. Her eyes were either the blue of that marker on a pregnancy test that says you’re not knocked up, or the green of a piece of okra floating in hollandaise sauce. She had serious hygiene problems, though, smelled like a rainy day at the petting zoo and her rotted teeth looked like she had a mouth full of crumbled Oreo cookies.”

So my question to you, my writer friends, is this: if we can all agree that nobody actually describes people this way in real life, why do we think it’s acceptable to do it in fiction? Granted, these particular analogies are as lame as a horse hit by a garbage truck. (Sorry, once you get going, it’s hard to stop.) But that may be obvious only because they’re all bunched together in one place. I suspect we’ve all read, and maybe even written, some equally bad descriptions that we sprinkled here and there in our prose.

Washboard abs.The third in the list of Ten Ways to Create Unforgettable Characters is physical description. Of real people. I understand there are conventions in certain genres, that just about every romance hero has a chiseled grin and a grizzled chin, washboard abs and a piano-key smile.

The flip side of washboard abs.

But those of us in other genres have the task of describing the guy in line in front of the romance hero at the beer booth, the guy whose grin poking out of a mangy beard is missing key teeth and whose washboard abs have migrated south to become a washtub belly.

The reality all writers face is that we’re stuck with the basics in terms of physical descriptions—tall/short, fat/skinny, old/young. And body parts--eyes, nose, mouth, ears. Here are three simple suggestions to guide us:

1. No summary words. Ugly, beautiful, athletic. Don’t tell me the bad guy is ugly, tell me his face is so concave the tip of his nose and his eyebrows would hit the wall at the same time if he tripped and he has a mole the size of a Milk Dud right above his harelip.

2. If you use a metaphor, keep it simple and striking. And no more than one metaphor per character per scene.

3. Don’t limit yourself to sight; give the reader kinesthetic details, too—how a character stands or moves. Will describes Granny in Black Sunshine:

She had hands like a man, big and strong, and they were only still when she held her Bible. Otherwise, they were in motion. They peeled potatoes, mended socks, scrubbed floors, planted flowers in the front yard and vegetables out back. But they’d always looked too large to fit on her mandolin, too awkward to evoke the haunting melodies of mountain music on summer evenings when Ricky Dan played his guitar and Bowman made a fiddle sing.

There are two decisions every writers has to make about character description—when and how much. Do you describe your character as soon as she is introduced, paint a detailed portrait so Loyal Reader can instantly picture her in his mind?

Or do you dribble description as you go along, noting only the basics at first—a man in his mid-thirties—and adding the rest as the story progresses?

I tend to be a Plan A writer. Marian describes her daughter-in-law, Piper, on page 3 of When Butterflies Cry.

Piper’s face, with them high cheekbones she got from her Cherokee grandmother, was likely pale as a clean sheet right now. No smile on them plump lips men went all stupid over. Her black hair hung loose in curls on her shoulders and Marian was sure there was a haunted look in her eyes ’cause you could read that girl’s soul in them big brown eyes. And when her temper flared—and Piper had a fearsome temper—she could pull them black eyebrows together to give you a look as would cause internal bleeding.

How much do you tell the reader? A portrait or a sketch? Is it your job to describe a character in such a way that the reader sees in his mind the same image you see in yours? Or is it your job to provide a few broad strokes so Loyal Reader can conjure up with his own image?

The choice is yours. But you do need to make it and stick to it.

One final description technique is to give a main character some characteristic, not strictly physical, that defines them, then use it in different circumstances throughout the story. Bobo, from The Memory Closet, had an unnerving habit of suddenly removing her dentures.

This woman's toothlessness didn't distort her face as profoundly as Bobo's did.

That first time, when she reached into her mouth and pulled out her bottom plate, then the top, and placed them on the red gingham tablecloth between us, I tried not to look at them. But looking at her face was equally disturbing. Everything below her eye sockets had imploded, sunk into a cave of wrinkled skin below her nose. And when the corners of her cavernous mouth turned suddenly upward, I wondered frantically, “Is she smiling?” I smiled back, just in case.

Maybe you’re smiling at me right now, too. Maybe not. But I’m smiling back just in case. And if you have character description techniques that might be useful to other writers, share them in the comments below and we’ll all smile back at you.

Write on!



J. S. Bailey September 18, 2013, 11:25AM |

Love this post! It irritates me to no end when authors describe someone as being "beautiful," "drop-dead gorgeous," "hot," and so on. What do those things even mean? Something different to each reader, I'm sure.   Reply

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Katie Cross September 20, 2013, 2:40PM |

I have to say this is one of the most refreshing posts on character description that I've ever read. The initial description had me cackling. Ha ha!   Reply

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LaDonna September 24, 2013, 10:48AM

The hardest thing for me to do in description is describe ethnicity without being politically incorrect. My editor told me I couldn't say Asian eyes or slanted eyes. So I gave up on his eyes and gave him an ear gauge big enough to put a pinky through. How do you handle those situations?   Reply

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Nicole Roder September 28, 2013, 9:51AM |

Great post! I tend to go light on the physical descriptions, but I once had a reader tell me she had trouble following one of my characters because she couldn't conjure her physical description. So I've since tried to add more in. But since I don't want to dedicate a big chunk of text to describing what a person looks like, I try to work it in through the character's actions. (i.e. A woman who sweeps her hair off her neck in the heat and ties it up in a messy bun must have long hair. A man who stoops to walk through a doorway must be tall.) I also find it helps to let the characters' dialogue describe each others' looks. (i.e. A woman runs into an old friend who marvels at how much weight she's lost. A daughter laments that her eyes aren't as blue as her mother's.) Thanks for all the suggestions. Love your blog!   Reply
9e October 14, 2013, 9:31PM |

Nicole, I owe you an appology. There was a glitch in my website and it didn't notify me of several pending comments...yours here was one of them. I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to ignore you. I like your practice of sneaking descriptions in without devoting hunks of space to them. I have done some of that kind of thing in the past, but thanks for the reminder. I'll definitely try to do more in the future.   Reply
PoetsAndRhymers February 10, 2014, 12:07PM | http://@LikeIsNas

Thank you for the post. I'm going to keep these tips in mind when I read over my short story. I'm used to mostly writing poetry so I sometimes question my ability to properly describe characters. The end of your post made me laugh. Thanks again.   Reply

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Julie Lees March 3, 2014, 12:04PM |

Great post, full of really useful information. Have printed it out for reference to keep me focused when I'm writing. Thanks.   Reply

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Jan Baynham April 6, 2014, 7:43AM |

A really interesting post, thank you, Ninie. You've made many very helpful points. I often feel 'less is more'. We can give the reader lots of hints but s/he will need to use imagination and interpretation to work out the whole character. Love your blog, BTW.   Reply
K_Kendall April 19, 2014, 1:20AM

God, I hate it when the characters just are not real. I read a book where the girl had a "C-cup" but the bra was to small and got size 8 pants, but were to big. Two men had to go out shopping for her because her old ones were burned. I don't know anyone, ANYONE, with a body like that. But out of all the ones I read here, my favort by far was Bobo, from The Memory Closet.   Reply

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Leon April 26, 2014, 12:23AM

Question: Do you describe every character? I just realised that Joseph and David - the same two that needs new names - don't have descriptions yet. That's fine, I'll fix that in a sentence or two each and actually build at least David's back-story in the process. But there are quite a few minor characters. Three ex-child soldier illegal miners, a drama-queen policeman, a body guard to the righ-wing leader... Their personalities are all described, some in more details than others, but thus far they're lacking physical descriptions. Or - in line with their minor roles - should I stick with short cryptic descriptions, e.g. De Wet, with his ash-blonde hair and green eyes, has the look of someone going through a bit more trouble with his appearance than does your average policeman. This is in line with his drama-queen personality and even if I have to do that for all the remaining characters, it won't be too much trouble. But do I need to?   Reply

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Lori Schafer May 7, 2014, 12:04PM |

I tend to like the "dribble" method myself - mostly because that's how I see people when I meet them. I notice the most blatant features first - tall or short, dark or fair, bright eyes or dull - and only later do I pick up on the subtleties. Is the smile welcoming or forced? Do the hands shake? How receded is the hairline? So in my writing I like to give a broad description - enough to make the character recognizable - and then delve into the specifics as the story continues.   Reply

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Rita Mack July 19, 2014, 12:16AM

Thank you. I must admit I use both methods and didn't really know which one was best. Your tips are terrific and keep em coming. On ethnic descriptions I usually go for dark honey brown or light golden brown. You were definitely born to be a composer of words. 'Love your work.'   Reply

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Chenelle August 11, 2014, 8:49AM |

This has been very helpful. Even though I've used several of these techniques it's a great reminder. Writing in First Person Perspective, I find describing my main character is the most difficult. In real life we (the hero of our own story) don't sit around thinking about the color of our eyes, or how tall we are, it makes it a challenge to weave it in believable.   Reply

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Natalie Meg Evans August 12, 2014, 12:17PM |

Hi, great post and a useful nudge as I'm in mid write right now and need to be reminded to be subtle with description. I like to introduce a character from the off, in short pen strokes. If I'm reading and I form my own picture of someone, only to discover twenty pages on that they look wholly different, it confuddles me. As some earlier comments point out, 'Ugly' 'Hot' 'drop dead' etc are rather lazy and never allow the reader to go beyond their own, mental gallery. I like to give readers such a clear image, that character goes straight into the visual cortex. That's the hope, anyway! May I give you one of mine? Translation notes: In the US, I think you would probably use 'scallion' for spring onion. This is from my WIP, The Milliner's Secret, and the scene is a laundry house. "A woman in green aprons emerged from an outbuilding in a cough of steam. Her sleeves were rolled, her white hair twisted up so tightly it stretched her eyes and the cords of her neck. Cora never saw Granny Flynn without thinking of a spring onion."   Reply

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Julie Brown August 13, 2014, 1:07AM |

I'm in the middle of editing my novel and will use these tips to tighten my descriptions. Good to think beyond hair and eye color, height, weight, age . . . unless the character is describing the guy who just robbed the bank! Great post - thank you!   Reply

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kls August 5, 2015, 4:16PM

Interesting! I might just go over my current work to see if I can spiffy up some of the descriptions (and make sure I am not using any cliche words). Another poster mentioned hating reading people described as "hot" and WOW do I agree. I've wanted to toss e-books in the e-trash when I see the main male character described as just "hot". Ugh.   Reply

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"Oh, and about the 9 and the e beside my name. Say it fast, emphasis on the 9. That’s how you pronounce my first name -9e. (Think “rhymes with tiny and shiny, NOT with skinny and penny.”)

Suspense Author

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